Leeyan Rough and Olive Ulay were pals at primary school, although they came from very different backgrounds. They were good company for each other during the scary first days of secondary, until Olive met Chris, a fourth year boy, and started to go out with him.
Leeyan was jealous and passed disparaging comments about Chris's complexion. Olive's response was to make caustic remarks about the area where Leeyan lives and about her cheap clothes. Leeyan is not as bright as Olive, and found it difficult to respond to the barbed comments. When other friends began giggling as they passed, she made excuses for not going to school. After one absence of three days, she returned to find an advert for a second-hand clothes shop tucked into her English folder. When she challenged her tormentor at lunchtime, Olive Ulay denied all knowledge of the prank. Leeyan could take no more. She punched Olive, causing her lip to bleed, and ran home.
By the time Mrs Ulay arrived at the school early next morning, she had already contacted the bullying hotline, her local councillor, and the education department. A social worker by profession, she was livid not only about the incident, but also because she was due that very morning to address a national conference on the topic "Inclusiveness and Alienation in 21st Century Scotland". Mrs Ulay had succeeded overnight in demonising Leeyan in her mind, and she demanded to see the headteacher. She wanted assurances that Leeyan would be excluded for all time and never allowed access to Olive again. She required a guarantee they would never be in the same class, and would not travel on the same bus. I explained that physical violence was absolutely unacceptable in school, and if Leeyan was responsible, she would be dealt with.
When Mrs Rough appeared, she too wanted action. She was ready to sort out "the snobby bastards", and the tattoo on her arm suggested that she would not flinch from physical combat. She was accompanied by her sister, and had a toddler at her side and a baby in the pram. She declared that neither the family nor the pram would leave my office until she was allowed to see the bully, whom she perceived as being Olive. Eventually, she was assured the matter would be fully investigated. Verbal abuse of Leeyan would not be allowed.
In the ensuing days, a great deal of management and guidance time was spent responding to the various agencies who had been enlisted, including the police, who had received a complaint of assault. The guidance teacher skilfully brought the two girls together and gradually extended the discussion to the wider group. The two girls were never again as friendly as they previously had been, but they eventually learned that there was no future in taunting one another. The parents received a report of the incident, but both perceived the lack of retribution as a failure of the school. It seems likely that Olive Ulay will throughout her life fight her corner by more subtle means than the feisty Leeyan.
Is Leeyan a bully? Is Olive a bully? Are both bullies? Did the school succeed or fail? The press and occasionally politicians, present stereotypical images of the muscular bully, stalking puny victims and beating them up while teachers turn a blind eye. Even the term "bullying" has become degraded by being extended to cover all anti-social behaviour. The idea of "stamping out bullying" suggests that it is like bacteria in the loo.
Bullying is not always violent, and violence is not always bullying. It can be verbal, or silent. It corrodes the victim's confidence bringing misery. It has to be tackled, and schools encourage young people to bring their concerns out into the open. All children, like Leeyan and Olive, can become bullies and victims at different times. So can headteachers.
Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh.